FIBA women’s Asia Cup: Top teams in fray

A professional set-up is something that Indian basketball has always lacked. India, unlike its counterparts, doesn’t face the issue of pay disparity between men and women, for the players hardly earn anything from basketball. The men, at least, get more opportunities to play, thanks to the UBA Pro Basketball League. But the women neither get to play nor get paid.

The Indian women's team that took part in the William Jones Cup this year. Standing (from left): Anjana P.G., Barkha Sonkar, Grima Merlin Verghese, Anmolpreet Kaur, Poonam Chaturvedi, R. Rajapriyadarshini, Navaneetha P.U. and Kavita Akula. Sitting (from left): Shireen Limaye, Raspreet Sidhu, Coach Shiba Maggon, Chief Coach Zoran Visic, Manager Srinivasa Murthy, Anitha Paul Durai and Jeena P.S.

The top teams from Asia and Australia are preparing to establish their supremacy in the FIBA women’s Asia Cup, beginning in Bengaluru on July 23. (Australia and New Zealand will be competing in the tournament for the first time.) India is also preparing, not to beat the top teams but to be among them. The host nation is in Division B of the tournament, and, if the team finishes first in its group, it will be promoted to Division A for the next edition.

Since 1970, India has participated in the Asian Championship 17 times, and its best performance has been a fifth-place finish in 2013. In the following edition, in 2015, India was relegated to Division B. Considering the scant support the team has been receiving from a mostly dysfunctional basketball system in the country, the fifth place in 2013 is remarkable.

“In 2013, we had a camp for three months. But in 2015, we had a mess-up. We had very little time to prepare,” says Anitha Paul Durai, 31, the team’s most experienced player who has been playing for India for 16 years.

“In the last minute, Kavita Akula, one of our main players (a point guard), who was in the US, training under the IMG programme, couldn’t get a visa. And, in the last one week before the 2015 tournament, we didn’t even have an indoor stadium to train because the kabaddi league was going on at the Kanteerava Stadium (in Bengaluru). The other teams had camps for five-six months, we trained only for about 20 days,” she adds.

It’s been two years since the Indian team has played. Other than the Asia Cup and the William Jones Cup, the players hardly get to play at the international level. Top teams like Australia and China, according to Anitha, train through the year and regularly play invitational tournaments with other teams. The Indian players, meanwhile, play among themselves in the National Championships and other national and local tournaments.

“If we keep playing amongst ourselves, we won’t improve. Only by playing countries like Japan and Korea we can get better,” says Anitha.

Geethu Anna Jose of Indian Railways rises above the Chhattisgarh defenders to score in the final of the 2014 National Championship. According to Anitha Paul Durai, Geethu became a completely different player after playing in the Australian league. - SANDEEP SAXENA

 

Most of the top basketball-playing nations have established leagues. The USA, the champion in the last six Olympics, has been having the Women’s National Basketball Association since 1997. The Australian women, ranked fourth in the world, have been playing in the Women’s National Basketball League (WNBL) since 1981. Asia’s top team, China, has players competing in the Women’s Chinese Basketball Association (WCBA).

These well-marketed leagues attract foreign players. The WNBA professionals, for instance, play in other leagues for better pay. The local players in those leagues, as a result, get to interact with players from the world’s best basketball-playing nation. WNBA also picks players from other countries. This season, it has 11 international players on its 12 teams. Brazil and Australia each have three representatives, with Belgium, Japan, England, Canada and Africa contributing one each.

There are no such leagues for women in India. And only a handful of players, including Anitha and Geethu Anna Jose, have participated in foreign leagues. Playing in the Thailand Basketball League, Anitha says, has improved her game. Geethu became the first Indian woman to play in the Australian league.

“I know how Geethu was when she joined Railways in 2003. She was a different player after playing in the Australian league,” Anitha says of her former team-mate. “So, we need a professional set-up. And, we need money as well.”

A professional set-up is something that Indian basketball has always lacked. India, unlike its counterparts, doesn’t face the issue of pay disparity between men and women, for the players hardly earn anything from basketball. The men, at least, get more opportunities to play, thanks to the UBA Pro Basketball League. But the women neither get to play nor get paid.

“Job opportunities for woman basketball players are few compared to the men. Only one or two organisations, like Railways, continue to hire us,” says Anitha. “So, aspiring players leave the game to study MBA or do something else that’ll help their future better.”

Anitha, like many of her team-mates, juggles with her game, family and a day job. During a break from training this June, she went home (Chennai). “My coach asked me to concentrate on my fitness during the break. But when I reached Chennai, I had so much work. I had to roam a lot for my kid’s school admission, office work, sports work. I had to go everywhere. I couldn’t concentrate on my game and fitness. And, ultimately, my office, Railways, pays me. Not basketball. It’s not possible to (entirely) focus on the game and constantly improve our fitness levels,” she says.

The coaching at the grassroots needs to get better, according to former players.

“When they play for the national team, the elite coaches have to train them in even basic things,” says the team’s assistant coach Shiba Maggon. “Other big teams like China do the right things from childhood. No coach has to correct them regarding the fundamentals. But with us, even in the national team, there are a lot of corrections to be made.”

Setting up ‘development centres’ across cities, Shiba feels, will improve the game in the country. “You can set up clubs, have home and away games. That way, kids get to play more rather than one junior or sub-junior nationals every year. Only then they can overcome the pressure of competing.”

Shiba, who played in the national side for 14 years, helps aspiring players from several parts of the country through social media. “Those who don’t have a good coach or need my help send me messages on social media. From my side, I send them videos or YouTube links. I reach out to these players as much as I can,” says Shiba.

Former India captain Prasanna Jayasankar, who now coaches the UBA team, Chennai Slam, suggests training for the junior-level coaches by highly skilled foreign coaches. “The foreign coaches should go to the NIS (National Institute of Sports) centres and teach the coaches there. Only then there will be uniformity in coaching. Else, I’ll teach something, someone else will teach something else. The fundamentals of the game shouldn’t vary. In the US, the training methods and the system are uniform at the grassroots level,” she says.

The Basketball Federation of India (BFI), which is supposed to run the game efficiently in the country, has been embroiled in infighting for the best part of the last six years. Its former secretary general Harish Sharma helped the federation secure a 30-year deal with IMG-Reliance in 2010 to market the sport in the country. IMG-R, as per the deal, has all the commercial rights of basketball in India, including sponsorship, advertising, broadcasting, and more. A professional basketball league was also on the cards. But after Harish’s death in 2012, the BFI split into two: one faction led by K. Govindraj of the Karnataka Basketball Association and the other by Bharatiya Janata Party MP Poonam Mahajan. FIBA, the world governing body of basketball, recognised the faction led by Govindraj, but the internal conflict resulted in IMG-R stopping the funds to BFI. The BFI is now waiting for IMG-R to either pay its dues, or terminate the partnership so that it can seek another sponsor.

Meanwhile, the National Basketball Association (NBA), recognising India as a potential market, has started several grassroot-level programmes to promote the game. According to NBA India’s managing director Yannick Colaco, the NBA Academy, opened in May, aims to develop top international male and female prospects from the country. The academy now offers scholarship and training for 21 boys, who were selected through a three-month talent hunt programme in six cities.

“We also plan to conduct regular training camps at the academy for elite female prospects from across India,” says Yannick.

Former Olympic champion Jennifer Azzi, according to Yannick, has been appointed as technical director for the girls’ programme and is working on the curriculum and strategy for the assignment.

Yannick also claims that the ‘Reliance Foundation Junior NBA’ programme has reached over 2.8 million girls in the last four years. “We launched ‘NBA Basketball Schools’ a couple of months back and we have close to 40% female participation in that too,” he says.

Players, former and present, agree that NBA’s efforts are helping women’s basketball grow at the grassroot level.

“Yes, things are changing,” says Anitha. “NBA’s been setting up centres in schools, universities. They had even come to witness one of our training camps in Bengaluru… Basketball in India is improving.”

For now, however, the veteran’s goal is to get India back among the top teams in the Asia Cup in her 17th year with the national team. Despite the hardships, Anitha carries on because “it’s still a nice feeling to play for India.”

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